“WE DISCUSS VANA’DIEL” is a series of conversations between Producer Matsui and special guests who are familiar with FINAL FANTASY XI (FFXI).
Our seventh guest is Tetsuya Nomura, one of Square Enix's leading creative minds who worked on various initial character designs for FFXI. In this first part of the conversation, we asked Mr. Nomura to talk about how he began to distinguish himself in his early days at Square.
One of the main creative minds at Square Enix on the FF series. He bolstered the fame of the FF series with iconic characters such as Cloud, Tifa, Aerith, Squall, Yuna, and Lightning. He is also the director of the Kingdom Hearts series, another flagship IP of Square Enix, which will be celebrating its 20th anniversary in 2022.
A slightly audacious junior
Before we talk about FFXI, we’d like to hear about when you first joined Square (as they were formerly known).
As a fresh graduate, I joined the company full-time in 1991, and my first job was debugging FFIV.
On my first day, I wasn’t sure what everyone wore at Square and wore a suit to work, as you might expect from a new employee. But then I ended up debugging with part-timers who were dressed really casually. (laughs) I stuck out like a sore thumb.
Mr. Matsui, I believe you joined the company before Mr. Nomura.
That’s right. Up to then, I didn’t have any juniors in the truest sense of the word, since everyone who joined after me was already experienced. So when Tetsu* joined the company, I was really happy to finally have a junior colleague.* “Tetsu” is a nickname for Mr. Nomura.
What was your impression of Mr. Nomura?
From my point of view, he seemed a bit audacious and unintimidated by his senior colleagues. (laughs)* High fantasy is a subgenre of fantasy set in a fictional alternate universe, as opposed to the low fantasy subgenre which incorporates magical elements in an otherwise normal world.
That aside, Tetsu’s illustrations had a profound influence on my ideas of the fantasy genre. Before that, I used to be more of a traditionalist when it came to fantasy. However, Tetsu’s attitude was like, “Anything goes, as long as it’s cool,” and he was always eager to incorporate innovative designs. For example, characters like Gilgamesh from FFV, or Setzer and Shadow from FFVI wouldn’t really belong in what’s considered high fantasy*, but they look really cool. Seeing them made me think, “So ‘fantasy’ can be like this too!” and altered my perception.
After debugging FFIV, you took on monster designs in FFV and made a sudden emergence as a creator. Were you conscious of anything that made you stand out compared to others, as Mr. Matsui mentioned?
Ever since I joined the company, I’ve always been the type to actively come up with ideas, which applied to things outside of designs as well. During the development of FFV, I often appealed to Mr. Ito* saying, "I want to introduce a monster like this!" As my ideas were adopted, it became easier for me to create characters that reflected my own personality.* Hiroyuki Ito, game and battle designer for many titles in the FF series.
I was also different from my senior graphic designers who designed characters by starting with the pixel art. I felt that concept design was essential in creating characters and was very meticulous about drawing the designs first. Translating those illustrations into pixel art was a struggle, but I think it was part of what allowed me to create distinctive characters.
Typically, a designer's job is to design things based on what the game planners requested, so someone like Tetsu was unusual at Square even back then. Sure, no one likes to redo their work, but sometimes I feel designers ought to follow Tetsu’s example and be more proactive about what they personally want to draw.
Many designers nowadays ask for really detailed directions, perhaps because their responsibilities have become much more specialized than before. As for me, I think I wanted to create games rather than draw illustrations.
Modern teams are well-managed, and many skilled designers are able to focus solely on design. But a management structure like that wasn’t in place back then, and I was suddenly thrust into the frontlines with no guidance whatsoever. (laughs) I had to figure out how things were done on my own. (laughs wryly)
So it was thanks to your proactive approach that we ended up with many iconic characters, like Cloud from FFVII.
Fearlessness may have been a part of that, since I was less than half my current age and was just drawing illustrations without any professional knowledge. When I was drawing monsters for FFV, a senior colleague from the graphics team instructed me to make my designs smaller because they were larger than the specified size. I pouted, “Okay, but it looks cooler if it’s bigger,” which made them furious. (laughs wryly)
Your senior was right, and I can’t blame him for getting mad. (laughs) After all, back in the SNES era, everyone was struggling to make everything fit in the limited amount of memory we had.
I’m sure I was at fault in other ways too. The things we do out of ignorance can be alarming, can’t they? (laughs)